Truthfully, I’ve never been much of a Joyce Carol Oates fan before this film. I’ve usually thought her plots accentuated the sorts of male-female conflict weren’t exactly subtle to begin with. Then again, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, maybe for the hard of hearing you have to shout sometimes.
If you had asked me to pick a director best suited to adapt an Oates work to cinema, you would have waited a long time before I came up with the name of Laurence Cantet, best known as a Palme d’Or winner in 2008 for The Class. In retrospect it is a perfect pairing. Not only did his previous work depicting high school students demonstrate an ease in dealing with a large cast of characters, the quiet, reserved, distanced directorial style really helps the more underlined parts of Oates’s plotting from feeling like they are leading you around by the nose.
Foxfire is one of those “yes it really was that bad” period pieces that slowly and objectively multiplies the violence (emotional and physical) the female characters are subjected to, making vivid the feelings of powerlessness and trapped-ness, until you not only understand their banding together, you countenance it.
Here’s the thing, though, about fire, once it starts burning, it is inevitably a lot harder to direct and control than you think. That is really the reason why anger is so very dangerous in the spiritual realm. It so often begins as righteous anger. One of the refreshingly intelligent things about Foxfire is that it doesn’t go where you think it will. Or, rather, it does, but it gets there so much quicker than films only interested in the inevitable crash and burn downfall of the female avenger that it actually has time to ask “what comes next?”
That’s part of the reason why, as good as the first half of the film is, the second half is even better. It holds the young women up to moral scrutiny, empathizing, of course, with their victimization, but refusing to give them a free pass for any and every decision they make. The internal conflicts within the girl gang raise questions of whether the abuse of power is peculiar to men (of course it isn’t) and whether institutions can remain flat (I doubt it) and committed to their initial vision as they expand (possibly, but only with a lot more care put into how expansion happens).
I suspect those who don’t like Foxfire will find the last act’s descent into near parody either lacking credibility or evidence of the film’s sinister (political) intentions from the get go. It’s actually a pretty complex and ambiguous resolution, however, with its failure to neatly align the fates of each character to their respective degrees of culpability raising questions about the moral fairness of life that could (or should) resonate far beyond women who grew up in the fifties.
There is a moment, late in the film, where a man who has gone from a life of ease and apparent feelings of entitlement responds to his own victimization in ways that make us question many of the assumptions we have had about him and people like him. We are so very quick, male and female, to think we can know perfectly and judge righteously. The slope from self-defense to self-preservation, to self-protection, to self-exaltation is so frighteningly slippery, we too often find ourselves at the bottom of it before we even feel ourselves beginning to fall.